Pacesetter: The story of MESHA, 15 years later
By Aghan Daniel I firstname.lastname@example.org
About 20 years ago, writing on science in Kenya was a very lonely and daunting task. Those who dared write about science were few and daring. The Daily Nation, the leading newspaper in the region had hardly two dedicated specialized writers who handled health, agriculture and environmental stories.
At that time, a now retired editor advised me that science writing was not an agenda in the media house. He told me, over a lunch meeting, that given my huge interest in science, my fortunes lay in getting a job in a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
In March 2000, I left the newsroom and began to work in an NGO that was foreseeing the formative stages of biotechnology in Kenya.
In April of the same year, while interviewing farmers in Eastern and Western Kenya about diseases and pests that stifled various crops grown in these areas, I could not stop but feel that what I was doing was the work of a journalist. The farmers faced so many problems that needed to be captured by the media. Since the newsrooms were almost empty of science writers, I did and sent the stories to my former editor who gave them space time and again. But how long was this going to last? Would I keep up with the very busy schedules my job demanded from me?
It was not until I got an opportunity to live in Tanzania in 2005 as a participant in a Norwegian government sponsored exchange program called Fredkorpset (now called Norec) that I realized science journalists could be organized and brought together in an association – for the sole purpose of growing the profession. That way, people doing genuine work in the fields away from the big cities, would have competent professionals to tell their stories.
And so, as I landed back in Kenya in October 2005, I organized a series of early morning meetings to discuss how we could entrench science journalism in our media houses. With wise counsel of a doyen of science journalism called Otula Owuor whose belief was that the priority was the journalist, we called upon a few (12) communication officers and journalists to discuss formation of a science journalists association. To Otula, editors would come later because what any editor wants is a good story and so, if we targeted and built skills among science journalists, they would churn out quality stories that the editors would not spike. “No good story perishes in the newsroom,” he kept on telling us. This quote made us prioritise meeting only the journalist at their points of need as the starting point.
In a big way, this quote challenged us to found the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA). To this date, MESHA has remained largely a growing journalist’s paradise.
Ever since we got our registration in February 2006, we have never looked back. From a mere 12 souls, we have now grown to over 100 members notwithstanding the fact that we have never had long term funding. We believe it is time for a funder to extend a hand and give us long term funding.
We have remained that organization that champions the interests of science journalists in Kenya and Africa. In addition, MESHA has a track record of competently organizing and holding high profile Science cafes, congresses and conferences bringing together hundreds of journalists, scientists, donors and communication officers from Africa and beyond. Specifically, we have single handedly, fundraised and held four African Conference of Science Journalists and Kenya Science Journalists Congress which has now mutated into the East African Conference of Science Journalists. This means we have a big foot print in African science journalism.
We continue, for the seventh year running, to publish a quarterly informative science magazine called Sayansi. The name means science in Kiswahili. The association also runs a science mentorship program for science journalists at all levels of career development. Last year, in 2019, we launched a blog where we carry science stories including stories by our young members who otherwise would have to wait for long to secure bylines.
With support from New York based AVAC, MESHA has over the years taken lead in organising cross border cafes whose objectives was to bring together other networks of science journalists from Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe under the AVAC umbrella, exchange information with other like-minded organizations, research institutes, scientists, civil society and stakeholders with a view of improving health communication in the region. We also continue to provide journalists with a focal point and hub of information and expertise in health research in nearly 20 African countries.
Looking back at the past 15 years we have learnt a lot of lessons. Chief among them is that science journalism has the biggest potential in Africa. It is still dotted with unimagined opportunities. It therefore needs a lot of financial and technical support. We have also learnt that science stories need not be sensational to appeal to the masses. This was the case before our association became a leader in this space.
As we celebrated our 15th anniversary on February 10, 2021, it seems the speaker of the day, Dr Charles Wendo, himself a veteran science journalist from Uganda, had read our minds when he said – the future of science journalism is digital. This is what we would like to priotise in our quest to ensure that our audiences access science information in formats that are friendly to them. Our task remains enhancing the capacity of science journalists to tell more and better African science stories.
Long live MESHA! Long live African science journalism.